CDC Urged to Recognize COVID Aerosol Transmission in Petition Signed by 10,000

The National Nurses United (NNU) and 44 other organizations and unions delivered a petition with over 10,000 signatures to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday to press the agency to update its official guidance on how the coronavirus is spread.

"The CDC's failure up to this point to recognize aerosols as the primary mode of transmission hurts all other guidance and efforts that stem from this lack of understanding," Bonnie Castillo, executive director of NNU, said in a press release. "We urge the Biden administration to honor its commitment to listen to experts in the battle against COVID-19, which includes having CDC and other federal agencies explicitly recognize aerosol transmission."

The coalition of labor and consumer organizations represents over 13 million people, including library employees, retail workers, utility workers, transit workers and teachers, according to the release. The allied groups are asking the Biden administration to update COVID-19 recommendations put out under former President Trump's administration.

Because the Trump-era guidelines do not recognize that COVID-19 is transmitted through aerosols, the groups say, proper measures aren't being taken to protect key workers in such sectors as health care, grocery stores, meatpacking, warehousing and transportation.

Statements from leaders of the allied organizations argue that their groups are extremely vulnerable to infection via aerosol transmission, which the CDC doesn't fully qualify as an infection pathway. As a result, the leaders say, workplace safety recommendations are lagging behind the rapid spread of the virus.

"As it becomes increasingly clear that aerosol transmission—breathing, speaking, coughing, sneezing, and singing—can spread the virus, we urge the CDC to officially recognize this issue and offer the science-based guidance we have come to trust and expect from the agency," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in the press release.

More than 4,600 transit workers have been infected, John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said in the release. The release also cites grocery store workers, who are five times more likely to test positive for the virus if they have customer-facing roles, according to The BMJ. Meatpacking is an additional area of concern behind the petition. USA Today reported in January that at least 45,000 meatpacking workers have been infected since the start of the pandemic.

The leaders behind the petition say keeping the U.S. economy open relies on recognizing the developing scientific intelligence on the virus' transmission. Otherwise, these groups of workers will continue to be infected, hospitalized and potentially killed.

A key reason to update the CDC guidelines is that essential workers would have access to better workplace accommodations, such as the superior N95 masks and improved ventilation and filtration, the press release says.

The Biden administration has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to update ventilation and mask guidelines by March 15, according to The New York Times, but it will be tricky for OSHA to make any such change before the CDC produces an official update.

The most recent February 17 CDC guidelines say the agency "does not recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 in non-healthcare settings."

Unions and consumer groups are asking CDC to recognize the coronavirus is mostly airborne. If not OSHA protections expected in March could be really flimsy.

— Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) February 23, 2021

The scientific community has also backed the call for changing the CDC's Trump-era guidelines, according to a letter from 13 experts sent on February 15 to Jeffrey Zients, coordinator and counselor for Biden's COVID-19 response; Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The letter notes that in October the CDC recognized inhalation as an exposure method but "recommendations have not been...strengthened to address and limit inhalation exposure to small aerosol particles." The doctors write that the CDC's "outdated" use of the term "respiratory droplets" inadvertently puts larger sprays and smaller particles into the same category, making it difficult for health care and non-health-care industries to administer the best control measures for their workers.

Registered nurses at Southern California Hospital demand a return to safe staffing levels on February 18 in Culver City, California. VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, expressed a similar sentiment last week, saying his "immediate concern" for the U.S. is hospitals being overrun by the U.K. variant of the virus.

7/ "It’s critical that the CDC recognize that COVID-19 can spread via infectious aerosols. For our members, the implications of the CDC not accepting aerosolized COVID-19 transmission poses grave risk as employers rely on the CDC’s guidance to implement appropriate mitigation...

— Jose-Luis Jimenez (@jljcolorado) February 23, 2021

"It's not just the big droplets that occur nearby," Osterholm said in an interview on PBS' Firing Line With Margaret Hoover last Friday. "What we need, really, right now is for [OSHA] to do its job, CDC has to do its job. And for CDC to do its job, it has to look at all this data and, I believe, come up with recommendations that say that this type of aerosol or airborne transmission is really very important."

He added that any essential worker who has an N95 mask should "absolutely" wear it.

Newsweek reached out to the CDC and OSHA for comment in response to the petition but did not hear back before publication.

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